What Is Research Actually Like?

I recently spent a few minutes trying to describe to a handful of undergraduates what it is like to do a research project.  I was trying to explain in quite general terms and was clearly failing when one exclaimed that X weeks in the lab to do one experiment sounded incredibly dull.  I was trying to describe the nature of my research and why I feel it is both novel and has a good chance of being successful.  After I stated that I wasn’t in the business of highly speculative new reactions that no one in the universe had ever done before, and that generally I picked bits from various papers and put them together in new ways, the confusion level reached an all time high.

So we moved onto an analogy: Lego.  Most of us have been given Lego or some similar construction stuff, and have  patiently followed the instructions and created the oil tanker/helicopter/ray gun/fairy princess house that the pack was designed for.  Frankly, after the second time of doing that, the kit has lost a lot of its appeal, because following the instructions is quite boring.  What comes next is the best bit of Lego – the inventing and remaking phase.  When you try to work out if the car will still go if you remove a wheel, or change the shape of the roof  or…  The best bits are when you take the kit and turn it into something unexpected that does something much better than the original.

Well that’s what I think my research is like.  I take bits and pieces that come with instructions, usually syntheses that are published somewhere, analytical procedures that are well documented or assays that a few folk have used already, and rearrange it all in the way I want then apply that to a specific problem.  Perhaps the papers we’re following make a molecule for one purpose and we want to try it for another purpose.  Perhaps by using established analytical methods we can compare our results to those of other researchers.  Perhaps when the end goal is making a material to test, we want to be pretty sure we can actually make the material.


Sometimes, like this morning, it is quite clear to me that research is not made of sturdy lego pieces that click together and are impossible to separate without breaking a nail.  Sometimes research feels more like a house of cards, again created from preformed components but much more flimsy and prone to collapsing around me.


This morning, while writing a grant application (and lets face it, those really are houses of cards), I realised that one of the initial assumptions I’d made was complete nonsense*. Just as if I suddenly pulled out one of those red cards right on the bottom of the stack, the whole thing came crashing down.  Most of my idea still works, but a lot of the elegance has been taken out of it.


So now I have to decide which way I want to rebuild the house of cards.  It looks like there are two ways, both requiring equal quantities of work.  One way requires rewriting approximately half the proposal (estimate 1500 words to rework); the other requires spending the afternoon learning about a new type of lego brick and writing a paragraph to introduce it into the proposal (estimate 250 words to rewrite).  I’m tempted to toss a coin really, but I suspect a 1500 word rewrite based on what I am already sure about knowing is better than trying to be knowledgeable about something completely new in the space of an afternoon.

* I was in the process of checking said assumption which was based on something someone else had told me when I realised that it was nonsense.   I can see how such a mistake can be made and  I’m aware that it is far better for me to figure this out pre-submission than leave a low hanging fruit like that for a reviewer, but it is still quite demoralizing.